Battle of the bots

Olympic High School teacher and robotics team advisor Brandon Brown consults with Steven Parkins and Chance Phelps as the two students work in Brown’s computer repair class. Both Parkins and Phelps are members of the Binary Robotics team. - Photo by Wes Morrow
Olympic High School teacher and robotics team advisor Brandon Brown consults with Steven Parkins and Chance Phelps as the two students work in Brown’s computer repair class. Both Parkins and Phelps are members of the Binary Robotics team.
— image credit: Photo by Wes Morrow

In January tens of thousands of high school students around the world sat in front of monitors to watch the live webcast from First Robotics that would announce the beginning of the 2013 season.

At 7 a.m. Pacific Time on the first Saturday in January, First Robotics announced the season goal to more than 2,500 schools — build a robot capable of throwing a frisbee. A basketball court-sized arena will be set up at each regional competition with a number of different targets.

This weekend, teams from Olympic, Bremerton and Central Kitsap High School will travel to the CenturyLink Event Center in Seattle to compete in one of four regional competitions around the state.

Student teams from all three schools spent the winter working tirelessly on their own robots. From the time of the announcement in January, teams have only six weeks to design and build a robot capable of not only handling the task, but performing it better than anyone else.

“You have 42 days from that moment to solve the problem of how you’re going to build this robot to play this game,” said Brandon Brown.

Brown is a teacher at Olympic and the faculty advisor for the school’s robotics team. He said during the six weeks of the design and build season time is a precious commodity.

Brown estimated he works 40 hours a week on the robotics team alone — that’s 40 hours on top of his full time teaching job.

“It’s a big commitment — it’s a lot of work, but it’s fun work,” Brown said. “It’s not a thing I regret doing.”

High schools recruit local engineers, who volunteer their time working with and mentoring students. Brown said Olympic has had the fortune of partnering with a number of naval engineers from Keyport.

The team at Central Kitsap has been participating in First Robotics competitions since 2010. That team is advised by teacher Jim Adamson.

Adamson and Brown work cooperatively on a number of projects. In fact, Adamson helped engineer Brown’s involvement in Central Kitsap and in First Robotics.

“He’s the one who kind of got me into teaching here in the district,” Brown said.

A couple years ago, when Adamson went to Australia, Brown had the opportunity to take Adamson’s team to the Seattle competition. He got to see the culmination of the Central Kitsap team’s hard work and experience the atmosphere of the event firsthand.

The idea was planted and not too much later, Brown founded Olympic’s own First Robotics team. This will be its second year competing in Seattle.

For Adamson and Brown, and Central Kitsap and Olympic, there’s an added layer of friendly competition — not only to beat the other schools, but to out-perform each other.

We’ve been (Adamson and Brown) competing against each other for 12 years,” Brown said. “This is another layer of our rivalry, and the rivalry that exists between CK and Olympic.”

The team for Olympic calls itself Binary Robotics. The team’s president is Jeremiah Carlson, a junior who also captained Olympic’s first team last year.

“This year we had a better idea of what we were doing,” Carson said. “We tried for a much more versatile and compatible machine.”

Four or five other members of last year’s team returned this year. All seemed to agree that their second time around was much more organized than the first.

Weeks of planning and hard work will come to fruition this weekend as the teams travel to Seattle for the regional competition, where thousands of people will fill the CenturyLink Events Center.

“It’s pretty shocking,” said one team member. “You would think it would be kind of small but it was just packed, and not just with teams but with spectators.”

Brown said last year one of the participating schools, Aviation High School from Des Moines, brought its entire student body of around 500 students to the event.

Not every school is fortunate enough to have a First Robotics team, however. It costs $5,000 just to register for one of the regional competitions.

Olympic’s team is funded entirely from grants. The more grants Brown can apply for and receive the more funding the program has. Most of those grants, however, are time-consuming in themselves.

Last year the Binary Robots team received $22,000. This year it got $14,000, from organizations like NASA, the Department of Defense and the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

First Robotics calls its competitions a varsity sport for the mind. Brown said there is even a movement to get the WIAA to recognize First Robotics with a sport certification.

“Students who don’t necessarily play baseball or football…” Brown said. “They can exercise their minds.”


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